Today is "Let's have fun with Bryce Harper's future day" at ESPN.com. Jim Bowden wrote a piece speculating that a potential contract extension with the Washington Nationals would be in the range of -- gulp -- $407 million. Eddie Matz and Andrew Marchand discuss that when Harper hits free agency after the 2018 season it will likely be a bidding war between the Nationals and New York Yankees.
That certainly makes sense. Harper grew up rooting for the Yankees, after all. Assuming he stays healthy over the next three seasons, however, Harper's services would be in demand by every team in baseball, and while we might assume only the biggest of big-market teams would be able to afford him, I think other teams besides the Nationals and Yankees could be surprise bidders.
Atlanta Braves: They've spent the past 14 months tearing down and collecting young talent as they start the rebuilding process. Gone are Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons and Shelby Miller. Other than shortstop prospect Dansby Swanson, acquired in the Miller trade, most of the prospects acquired have been pitchers, so there will be need for lineup reinforcement once the pitching matures. Beyond 2016, the only long-term commitments are Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis (who would be off the books by the time Harper hits free agency), Julio Teheran and Hector Olivera. But that's only $40 million on the 2019 payroll -- leaving money to go after Harper and get Braves excited about that new stadium that will be open by then.
St. Louis Cardinals: Maybe they were reluctant to go big into Heyward or Upton this offseason because they're looking ahead to the 2018-19 offseason? The 2019 payroll currently has just three players under contract, for a similar $40 million as the Braves: Mike Leake, Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko. Others such as Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Kolten Wong will be deep into their arbitration years by then, so they would have an overall payroll commitment beyond the Braves, but Harper would provide that power bat the Cardinals have lacked the past couple of years. Keep in mind that the Cardinals signed an estimated $1 billion new local TV deal this past summer that starts in 2018 and goes through 2032.
Texas Rangers: In 2011, Grantland's Jonah Keri wrote a piece about how the Rangers' local TV contract could launch a dynasty. They were about to head to their second World Series appearance in a row, they were reasonably young, and they had signed a deal with Fox Sports Southwest that would pay $80 million a year starting in 2015. The dynasty didn't quite materialize, but the team has repositioned itself after a bad 2014. In 2019, they'll still be paying Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus, but what better way to steal some thunder from the Cowboys than giving Harper $400 million?
Philadelphia Phillies: Once the Phillies give Ryan Howard his $10 million buyout at the end of the 2016 season, there will be just one player left making $1 million in 2017: Matt Harrison. The Phillies are a big-market team that has run huge payrolls when they were winning the division every year. Their sights already are set on Harper.
Houston Astros: If you want a sleeper, the Astros are a good pick. Assuming Harper wants to play for a winner, the Astros should be successful over the next three years, given their young roster and still-loaded farm system. They have no prohibitive long-term contracts on the books. Yes, they'd be set in right field with George Springer. Dallas Keuchel would also be a free agent after 2018, and they'll have to think about big money to Carlos Correa down the road. But how about Correa and Harper third and fourth? Dream big, Astros fans.
Toronto Blue Jays: Given the age of the current roster, the Jays will be looking to reload by 2019. Luckily, they should be in good financial shape to do so. Only Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin are under contract for 2019, and they are a big-market team. Josh Donaldson will be a free agent the same year, but given the age difference, throwing a big wad of cash at Harper would make more sense. Plus, imagine Harper in that park.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Well, of course we have to mention the Dodgers. Here's the scary thing about the team that now runs the highest payroll in baseball: The only players on the books for 2019 are Clayton Kershaw and Kenta Maeda. They're developing a younger core to go with Kershaw. In 2019, they'll be able to give Harper $35 to $40 million a year -- and probably run a lower payroll than they will in 2016.